Unions vs. school boards: Who has upper hand in bargaining?

Teachers and their supporters rally in Burlington last fall. File photo by Andrew Kutches/VTDigger
Three weeks ago, Republican Gov. Phil Scott outlined his proposal to have the state negotiate teacher health care benefits. Standing beside him were school board members, school superintendents and the secretary of education.

School board members continue to advocate for a statewide health care benefit. Despite the efforts and lobbying of the Vermont School Boards Association and the Vermont Superintendents Association, the two plans proposed by the Democratic leadership would put pressure on school boards.

Both the Webb amendment that passed the House and the Ashe proposal that passed the Senate would require school boards to make some difficult choices.

The Senate plan leaves bargaining to the school boards, reduces the education fund by $13 million to give property tax payers a break, and tells school boards to negotiate a specific deal to garner savings from an upcoming switch in health care plans. If school boards fail to get an 80/20 premium split on a particular plan and put an exact amount of money into health savings accounts to help cover teachers’ out-of-pocket costs, they will have to cut their already approved budgets.

The Vermont chapter of the National Education Association doesn’t want a statewide health care benefit, saying it would intrude upon teachers’ right to negotiate directly with their employers, the local school boards. Darren Allen, spokesperson for the teachers union, said the plan is “insidious” and an attack on a fundamental right.

“We have watched what happened in other states, and it sadly seems to be getting a foothold with some people here,” he said.

Last week, Dresden School Board Chair Neil Odell wrote a letter to lawmakers describing board members as outmatched by the Vermont-NEA. Odell has spent seven years negotiating for Marion Cross School in Norwich and the middle and high school in Hanover, New Hampshire, in an interstate school district. He said the teachers union has a “clear advantage in collective bargaining.”

A teacher works with students in Montpelier. File photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger
The state is divided into seven regions. Each has a person called a UniServ director who works for the Vermont-NEA and is responsible for contracts in that area. In 2016, the regional heads’ salaries (without benefits) totaled nearly $1 million, according to the union’s annual report to the U.S. Department of Labor. (Click on the document at the end of this story.)

UniServ directors are former teachers’ negotiators who take jobs with the union to train, advise and supervise bargaining in their region. They are arguably among those with the most to lose from a statewide teacher contract. The directors, who all make six-figure salaries totaling $958,304 in 2016, include:

Norman Bartlett in southern Vermont; David Boulanger in Chittenden County; Stuart Russo-Savage in central Vermont; Suzanne Dirmaier in northwestern Vermont; Jerry Carruba in the Northeast Kingdom, who succeeded Joyce Foster; Sean Leach in Addison-Rutland; and Robert Raskevitz in the Upper Valley.

Odell said they organize and coordinate bargaining across the state.

“At frequent dinner meetings, they share information between schools, and they orchestrate responses and settlements,” Odell said.

Dresden is one of the more than 60 school districts currently negotiating teacher contracts because of a switch to new health plans occurring Jan. 1 because of the Affordable Care Act. Odell said the teachers and support staff knew the details of a tentative agreement in a neighboring school district before it was ratified.

“In almost every round of negotiations, our teachers and support staff have referenced settlements in other school districts that hadn’t been announced or even ratified. It’s clear to me that the VT NEA is already negotiating at the state level — the party that isn’t — and legally can’t — are local school boards,” he wrote.

The seven UniServ directors orchestrate the sequencing of the settlements to bring in contracts that best benefit teachers first, according to school board members who have been informed of the process. This creates a landscape of comparable contracts that becomes important when bargaining ends up in the hands of fact finders.

If negotiations reach impasse, they go to mediation and then to fact finding. Fact finders listen to both sides but look less at the economic conditions and grand lists of an area and more at what other contracts settled for in that region.

Mark Porter, Fran Brock, Burlington
From left, Fran Brock, Burlington Education Association president, Mark Porter, Burlington School Board chair, and Ira Lobel, a mediator, address reporters after reaching a tentative contract deal. File photo by Morgan True/VTDigger
Mark Porter is a member of the Burlington School Board who negotiated last year’s one-year teacher contract that went to impasse, was imposed and almost drew a strike before it settled.

The board had Jeffrey Carr, president and senior economist at Eco and Policy Resources, testify on its behalf. He explained the local economic conditions, aging demographics, flat wages and rate of inflation, but none of this was used by the fact finder, according to Porter.

“We testified for hours, and none of this was brought up in the fact finding report. … It came down to the comparables,” Porter said. The board was told it could afford to give teachers a 3.25 percent raise.

The UniServ directors pressure each other. If a regional head has a poorly settled contract, it could harm the comparability pattern being built by the other six. So, one strategy would be to slow down progress by delaying mediation or fact finding on certain contract negotiations to get better results from others, and then use those to boost the remaining results, according to sources who serve on school board negotiation teams.

The sides are well-matched, according to Allen. “To suggest former teachers” — the UniServ directors — “are outgunning full-time superintendents and full-time business managers is a curious argument,” he said. He added it’s equally surreal to suggest school boards are left alone and don’t have a statewide school board organization managing the development of their negotiations.

School board members have the help of the VSBA and full-time, taxpayer-supported attorneys, Allen said.

But the boards’ association is no match for the Vermont-NEA, according to Odell.

“The VT NEA has financial resources in excess of $5 million. The Vermont School Board’s Association has roughly 1/5th those resources,” Odell wrote.

In the 2015-2016 election cycle, the teachers union spent $66,150 in campaign contributions to Democrats running for the Legislature and state office. The union $8,000 on Democrat Sue Minter’s failed gubernatorial bid, according to election records filed with the secretary of state.

The VSBA, a nonprofit, has 501(c)(3) tax status and cannot contribute to or coordinate with political campaigns.

The union leadership doesn’t change, and the negotiating teams of teachers are stable and garner more knowledge with time. But school boards are public bodies that often change membership, and they must abide by public meeting and public records laws.

“We cannot collaborate on bargaining. We may not condition bargaining (and for good reason). The VT NEA can and do coordinate their negotiations so that they can achieve favorable settlements,” Odell wrote in his letter.

But the unions do not see it that way. “We make no apologies for helping our members reach settlements that keep them in the profession. That keeps veteran teachers in Vermont. Ultimately, the people who make the decisions are the local negotiation teams and the school boards,” Allen said.

Who is on each side?

In an interview, Odell said he works full time as a software developer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. His part-time job — for which he is paid $300 a year — is serving on the school board and collectively bargaining teacher and support staff contracts.

“I don’t see how this is a level playing field,” he said.

But the teachers are also volunteering their time to bargain with their employers. “The people at the table are the team of local educators, but the field staff (UniServ directors) does provide assistance,” Allen said.

Still, more and more, school board members are saying they don’t feel like they are bargaining with their students’ teachers, but with the state union instead. They feel as though the agenda is being driven by someone other than those in the classroom.

“I feel like I’m negotiating with the Vermont-NEA,” Odell said.

Porter agreed, saying the teachers his board has gone up against in the past are savvy, smart and seem to know more specific details about items than board members.

The union is concerned the Scott proposal would lead Vermont down the road of Wisconsin and some other states. Nearly five years ago, Wisconsin passed Act 10 limiting the ability of union workers, including teachers and public employees, to bargain on salary, benefits or working conditions. Teachers in Wisconsin have reported a drop in salary and increase in health care costs.

Allen said the state should heed the cautionary tale of states that choose to go down this road. “States with collective bargaining also have the best schools in the country. … Our peer states are all states with strong collective bargaining,” he said, because teacher quality is higher in places where they can make a career and raise a family.

Similar arguments before

What do 1994, 2005 and 2017 all have in common? Montpelier crafted proposals to move teacher contract talks from local school districts to the state level. The attempts failed in the first two — one led by then-Speaker of the House Ralph Wright, a former teacher and card-carrying union member; the second led by three GOP House members.

The same arguments have been made in each round: Collective bargaining is a fundamental right, volunteer school board members need help going up against the teachers union, and property tax payers need relief.

Wright’s pre-Brigham bill was defeated in conference committee, and he blamed then-Gov. Howard Dean for not getting behind it. He told Seven Days: “I needed a Republican governor who could jerk [GOP Sens. Bill Doyle, John Carroll and John Bloomer, the Senate conferees] into his office and say, ‘Look, fellas, this is gonna get done. You at least send the bill back to the Senate floor!’”

In 2005, three Republicans — one of whom is still serving, Rep. Kurt Wright, of Burlington, introduced H.138, which would have had schoolteachers negotiate contracts with the state. One of the arguments being made in favor was that schools are paid for with a statewide property tax and teacher retirement is supported by the state.

Wright speculated the GOP proposal was likely a union-busting move, but he still saw a statewide teacher contract as liberating for educators: “What more effective impact could you have on an injustice at Colchester than to have 8,000 teachers go out in protest?”

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Tiffany Danitz Pache

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  • Tim Vincent

    “Collective bargaining is a fundamental right”
    NOT true. It is granted by legislation and can be removed by legislation.
    “Fact-finders”;that’s funny.
    How do “fact-finders” make their money?
    From labor disputes.
    Whose side do you think they are on?
    And salaries.
    People on these boards whine about the high salaries in the eeeeevil private sector.
    Each of these union people are picking up six figure salaries.
    Let’s hear some whining.
    I didn’t think so.

  • Ned Pike

    Surprise, surprise, surprise. The Democratic leadership once again puts the interests of one their largest contributors over the interests of Vermont taxpayers.

  • Paul Richards

    “…“We testified for hours, and none of this was brought up in the fact finding report. … It came down to the comparables,” Porter said. The board was told it could afford to give teachers a 3.25 percent raise.” This is akin to going to an auction and bidding against yourself. Wake up people! This is a totally rigged and corrupt system. If these people are so special and so gifted, let them get paid based on their merit, their demonstrated abilities, their performance and their outcomes rather than on fear and intimidation. If they are truly as gifted and talented as they, their union and the democrats would lead us to believe, they should have no worries of a cut in pay. They might make even more. Just think of the union dues they could save and how much better they would feel about being rewarded for their attributes rather than for the strong arm success of the union bosses. How can they go through life with so much hate and discontent in it? What ever happened to pride in your work that came from your achievements? Now it seems the only pride is in what they can get from the taxpayers. The job has little to do with it and it shows in the overall performance of their profession and in the performance of our children. Time to break the mold!

  • Supervisory union/district board negotiating councils are not over their heads. What is needed is for the SU and district boards to provide proper negotiation preparations. Define a vision for what a desired outcome looks like; develop principal statements to guide the negotiators; and insist that the Legislature and Governor confirm in law that meetings of board negotiation councils are subject to the open meeting laws without exception.

    That last point is extremely important. It is the openness of the meetings and the ability to access documents exchanged in negotiations that will help everyone, teachers’ included, see what is being offered, refused and agreed upon around the state.

    Quick addition: it would be helpful if the Vermont School Boards Association (VSBA) spent more time teaching boards how to negotiate instead of taking political stands.

    • Paul Richards

      “…and insist that the Legislature and Governor confirm in law that meetings of board negotiation councils are subject to the open meeting laws without exception.”
      Not going to happen. This is all part of their dirty scheme where 80% of the budget is decided behind closed doors between the expert, single purpose union lawyers and a overwhelmed board (no disrespect intended).

  • Jay Eshelman

    When school boards often consist of retired teachers, teachers from other school districts or their spouses, who does anyone think has the upper hand in contract negotiations. Add to the school board mix parents serving on the board with children in school who may fear retribution from the school staff if the parent board member is at all critical of school governance or pedagogy. And yes, intimidation happens; my wife and I experienced it, in writing, from the VT NEA.

    I have nothing against collective bargaining unless the union exists in a monopoly and there are no alternatives available. After all, monopolies are illegal in the private sector, and for good reason. Read the Sherman and Clayton Anti-Trust Acts.

  • Adrienne Raymond

    I hate to see this conversation degenerate into simple complaining about teachers and their union. The fact of the matter is that the greatest inequity in this unbalanced equation is that teachers are negotiating for their own livelihood and boards- no matter how responsible and diligent- are not. When private companies negotiate with their employees, the company negotiators (upper management/stockholders) see an actual advantage in the outcome- bonuses, higher stock prices, or promotions. When public boards negotiate with public employees there is no monetary advantage out there for boards other than, perhaps, slightly lower taxes nor is there any likelihood of a promotion for doing a good job. This along with the level of help that the VTNEA gives to teacher/negotiators is simply not available to boards. We cannot contribute to political parties nor organize and bargain as a group. This system of public unions is set up for the union members’ real advantage in the process of bargaining. It will never be equal, but bargaining at the State level takes away some of the NEA’s advantage. As to Fact-finder reports- Odell and Porter are absolutely correct. Every report I have ever read- at least 10 – has come down to comparables each and every time, regardless of a communities’ demonstrated ability to pay. Each and every time!

  • James Q Morrison

    It’s a ruse to say that their right to collective bargaining is being impinged as they can collectively bargain all they want at the State level too.
    They, and all the other State government union employees, should all be on Vermont Health Connect policies anyway to increase the size of the risk pool.

  • Edward Letourneau

    The democrats need to explain why they think active teachers should get special treatment, that is different from the state negotiating benefits for retired teachers and state workers. — How come not a single one has the ability to explain why there is a difference for the same class of workers.

  • John Freitag

    Thanks VTDigger for another informative article. The problem is that not only is there no level playing field for negotiations, but the enormous amount of time and energy that is put by teachers, administrators and school board members into these negotiations at the expense of focusing on the common goal of educating our children.
    It should also be noted that the nearly a million dollars paid to VTNEA field negotiators and legal cost from school boards all ultimately come from Vermont taxpayers pockets.
    How much simpler and cost effective to have, as Governor Scott has proposed, teachers health negotiations take place at the state level. It is a reasonable position that finds strong support from many Democrats and backers of our local schools, who see the effect of high property taxes on our communities and know something must be done.

  • William Adams

    I’m a 6th grade teacher and the chief negotiator for the negotiating council that bargains with the representatives of the supervisory union board. To suggest that the boards are in over their heads doesn’t pass the straight face test. They have the full resources of the supervisory union staff at their disposal as well as assistance from the Vermont School Boards Association when they come to the table to bargain. Sadly, they don’t always come to the bargaining table prepared to bargain.

    School board members are sitting across the table from elementary, middle, and high school teachers who have been elected by their peers to take on the job of negotiating in good faith for a fair contract. Candidly, the health care plans over which we are bargaining are NOT that difficult to understand and, again, school board and supervisory union board members have plenty of professional staff within the SU to help them prepare for negotiations. If they feel ill-prepared to do so, they have only themselves and their taxpayer funded staff to blame.

    • Gerry Silverstein

      I do not think the South Burlington (SB) School Board is “over their head” in their ability to intelligently bargain with the SBEA (SB teacher’s union).

      However, the union’s final offer before impasse was declared was (1) SB community and State of Vermont will pay 100% of all health insurance premiums and 100% of all out-of-pocket expenses of all teachers and (2) salary increases averaging 4.89% per year for the next 3 years (with inflation running below 2% nationally).

      In addition (yes in addition), SBEA has asked for an additional float holiday and would like the community and the State of Vermont to contribute to a 403b plan (in addition to the pension they will get through the State when they retire).

      At least in SB the problem is not the School Board being in over their head, the problem is the SBEA is making demands that clearly convey that they believe teachers are superior beings that members of the community must worship without question.

      As a professional educator myself I find the demands of the SBEA to be insulting, demeaning, and a willful disregard of the need to do everything possible to ensure that spending on public school education in Vermont is sustainable over the long-term.

    • Linda Kuban

      Our school directors have completed a work day already and you expect them to come to the table prepared.. I want them at meetings running our school. I want our superintendent to be running the district not negotiating contracts. In a lot of our small towns the school board members are friends with some of the teachers it puts too much of a burden on our boards

      • William Adams

        Yes, I do expect them to come to the table not only prepared but well-prepared. I, too, have been at work all day teaching, yet I find the time outside of my work schedule to ensure I’m prepared to negotiate. It’s not only the professional thing to do, it’s simply common courtesy.

      • William Adams

        Yes, I do expect them to come prepared and well-prepared. I, too, come to the bargaining table after teaching all day but I find the time outside of my work schedule to come to the table prepared to negotiate and answer questions. It’s not only the professional way to conduct oneself, it’s simply common courtesy.

  • Stu Lindberg

    I am quite surprised the VTNEA and the Democrats don’t jump at the chance for a big government solution to their healthcare needs. It was the VTNEA that gave large amounts of money, paid for with teacher union dues, to Governor Peter Shumlin and Democrat legislators to support single payer in Vermont.

  • David Schoales

    Mr. Odell makes several inaccurate statements in pleading his disadvantage. School boards do collaborate on bargaining- that is exactly what a Supervisory Union Negotiating Committee is for. The superintendents and business managers have professional associations that guide and advise them on negotiations, and many superintendents do meet regionally to share ideas. The Vermont School Board Association has a former VT NEA uniserv director they pay to provide negotiations workshops offering an insider’s view of how the union works. If school boards are at a disadvantage, it is because they are getting poor leadership and not engaging with the citizens in their towns to get clear support for their goals, not because the NEA is better at it than they are.

  • John farrell

    I believe Vermont has the highest per pupil cost for primary education. Out teachers salaries are very high compared to other states. The NEA “executives” all make over
    $300,000 a year. Teachers should NOT be treated as some special group that deserv

  • Kudos to Tiffany Danitz Pache and Vt Digger for insightful, clear and balanced reporting. Very interesting and informative.

  • Scott Thompson

    This debate shows yet again that the state’s priorities in education policy are money and politics. If we want negotiations with teachers to be about money and politics, then by all means, let’s go for the governor’s proposal. On the other hand, if we care about actually educating the next generation, then maybe we should think twice.

    • Keith Stern

      With both sides it’s about money and politics. The VTNEA donates to Democrat candidates. I doubt it would even listen to a Republican candidate even if his/her ideas would be beneficial to both teachers and all taxpayers.

    • J Scott Cameron

      State priorities or teacher union priorities? Collective bargaining of teacher contracts is rarely about the students. It is all about obtaining as much money, benefits and job security as possible. VT-NEA reps have often told me “teacher deserve a fair raise – if you have to cut some teachers to pay the others well go ahead and do it.”

      • Scott Thompson

        Our supervisory union (Washington Central) and teachers have negotiated three contracts spanning seven contract years, all via the technique of interest-based bargaining. This practice is worlds away from the traditional, adversarial, scorched-earth approach of which you have such long and distinguished experience and so understandably sour an opinion. Instead of facing off against each other in a hostile tug of war, the two sides in interest-based bargaining cooperate to make things better for everyone — above all for our schools and students.

        Our local teachers and boards have already reached a mutually beneficial agreement in this negotiating cycle. It’s hard to imagine the state doing any better than our negotiators have done, and very easy to imagine it doing a whole lot worse.

        In our case, moving from local bargaining to state-level bargaining would almost surely represent a giant step backward — unless both the state and VT-NEA were to see the light and embrace interest-based bargaining.

        Its big disadvantage? It would give lawyers a lot less to do.

        • J Scott Cameron

          WCSU Administrators, Board members and teachers have done a great job with the collaborative bargaining process. Keep it up! I want to retire anyway.

      • Phil Greenleaf

        But in fact the collective mindset of teacher organizations is to maintain positions because more teachers in schools mean better student ratios and better overall educational environments. While it is about money, it is also under-reported that this involves students much more than we think.

  • J Scott Cameron

    “The sides are well-matched, according to [VT-NEA Spokesperson] Allen. “To suggest former teachers” — the UniServ directors — “are outgunning full-time superintendents and full-time business managers is a curious argument,” he said. ”

    Yes, Superintendents and business managers are full time, but they are not full time negotiators, nor were they trained for that. Superintendents are hired to run school systems; business managers are hired to manage the money. Collective bargaining is, in fact, a big distraction for a superintendent and takes hundreds of valuable hours away from the important work of developing and improving education.

    Mr. Allen also does a disservice to the talents, training and abilities of his Uni-Serve Directors. They are well trained and have as much, if not more knowledge of negotiations tactics and labor law provisions as attorneys working in the field. They also make more money than most attorneys working in Vermont.

    I am a professional negotiator. We many small, fractured and financially stressed school districts and SU’s in Vermont. Not every district in Vermont can afford to hire professionals to provide assistance, but when they do, VT-NEA always requests the school provide copies of invoices from the professionals so that they can criticize the Board’s expenditures in the the press or their mailings. Teachers on local bargaining teams also spend time trying to convince their boards that introducing a professional into the process will “harm’ the wonderful relationship between the board and its employees. It’s a no-win position for a board.